You can recognise them, but only if you know what to look for. That bird-beak tautness of the face and the squinched lines of the jaw: these are the calling cards of the walking wounded.
I have said goodbye to you in a thousand different incarnations and not one of them has stuck.
The weird thing about death is, it consigns everything to definite. I don’t just mean in the obvious way, as in yeah, the person’s definitely dead and yeah, they’re not coming back. But what no-one tells you before it happens, is that their death, it’s going to define you forever, in relation to whatever you were to them. Or whatever you weren’t. You never see it any vacuities in obituaries, do you? No, ‘Sort ofs’ or ‘almosts’ or ‘on again, off agains.’ Just the concrete things. Husband, sister, mother, friend. That sort. Or nothing at all. There’s no room for anything that isn’t static, when the rest of the world’s turned upside down.
How do you mourn when there isn’t space for you to do so?
We were drawing at your coffee table, thick paper and lead-smudged noses. You rubbed out my face and inserted another. Your pencil pressed the page harder than mine did, so that even when I rubbed so hard the paper tore, I couldn’t quite erase your marks.
You were the colour of melted wax, strung up to bags of sugar-water from your nose and wrist. I imagined that they were wicks and the steady stream of nutrition running through them was fire, lighting your veins with the candle-flame flicker that you had lost. I said, ‘How are you?’ and you said, ‘Can you look at the IV for me, at the back of the bag? I want to know what they’re pumping me full of.’ I pretended not to hear and you huffed a breath, pissed, but still held out an arm to me. I sat on the bed and you took my hand and it was all bone and bloodless capillaries, your fingernails clubbed and mauve, your knuckles mottled like chicken skin.
I said, ‘When do you think you’ll be out?’
‘Fuck knows,’ you said. The word was too big in your mouth and you held it carefully, presenting it bloody and broken like a cat with a kill, and I pulled my breath in so that my nostrils flared. I turned my voice to syrup, to toffee, to meringue, and said, ‘Oh, that’s a shame, we all miss you so much,’ and stayed as smooth as a chocolate river for the rest of the time I talked.
I lost you when I was nine. I lost you when I was eleven. I lost you when I was fourteen, seventeen, eighteen and twenty. Over and over, the emptiness has re-entered me and there are times when I feel that all I am defined by is absence.
The Nile ain’t just a river in Egypt, and I became good at swimming it. I carried Splenda in the pockets of my heart and whenever affairs became too jagged I dunked a couple into my dialogue. That’s what I became brilliant at, rowing myself along that river on a constant chatter of empty sweetness. Only I knew how empty I was, that besides all that sugar I was running on nothing but the white-hot fizz that sets up shop in your limbs when your heart is dying a long and terrible death. How could I tell anyone? I needed to protect them, and if my innocence was a comfort to them, that was what I would be.
The more you shrank, the more space you took up. The more space you took up, the more I shrank to accommodate you. A feeding cycle, of sorts.
I’m lonelier than I remember how to be and God, I have never cried over anyone the way I cried over you.
I received a card from you when you were in hospital, a red and gold peacock crested on the front, flowers and leaves ornate around the edges. There was something of a Faberge design about it, and I knew what you were doing, knew it in the pit of my gut even before I released the squashed-ant scrawls of your biro. I read it six times over and then I fetched the kitchen scissors and severed your love and promise and please into kaleidoscopic fragments and on each of the broken pieces of the whole I wrote my words over yours.
How do you carve a crevice for yourself out of the ruins of what used to be?
If you think that you will beat me down like dough to be kneaded or earth to be tamped, then I have a whole world of contradictions for you locked into this head of mine. I am more than what was, more than what I regret, more than what was made of me and more than what I failed to make of the glittering vestibules thrown at my feet. I am fire and water, earth and air, scars and stories and I swear with all of the marrow in my bones that I will keep on living and oh, I will set this nebula on fire. The world began with the destruction of a star, so let mine begin with it, with the implosion of light and loss that your absence in the world has gifted me with, darling. Ungive: in a faded language, this means to thaw. I will ungive myself, day by day and night by night, until these memories lay claim to me no more and I can mourn for you as a whole and walk this path not as a ghost or a wraith or a banshee but as a being whose footprints will mark this earth like stamps. Don’t cry for the loss of stars, because the universe is made up of them and without loss there would not be growth. Without change there would not be movement and without movement there would be no summer, no winter, no day or night, no sunlight, no starshine, and it is true that none of these things exist in your absence, but that will change and I know that you would wish that. Movement. That’s all we can do really, isn’t it? Just keep on moving until we stop.
I live off these words, they are my breakfast, lunch and dinner. I breathe them in and they fill the space inside me like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, slotted in neatly to stopper the weeping of my wounds. Words and wounds: what difference, really, is there?
You hurt me. You hurt me. You will never stop hurting me. Past, present and future, it is what it is, and you are what you are, but what you are not and never will be is a regret. You are my greatest fear and my deepest sorrow and you are the wheels that keep me moving onwards, down this path, wherever it might lead. I am scared of you and I love you and I hate you and I laugh at you and I am beginning to make my peace with all of these things existing as one, together and apart. Together and apart, that is you and me. Together and apart, imperfect and scarred, is how we have to be.
When there isn’t a word to describe how you feel, do those feelings cease to exist? When there isn’t a space in your culture’s vocabulary laid aside to you, do you yourself cease to exist? Do you become invisible? Or do you just become deeply, deeply desolate?
You came into my room and lay on my legs. You pushed your face into the hollow of my back and I felt you say, ‘I’m not enough, am I?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘You’re too much.
The other day I saw a girl who had your face.
As time goes by I see more and more of them, the people with your face. Less is more, and the lesser they are the more I see you in them. I wonder sometimes – did I ever see you at all? Or every time I laid eyes on you, on your mug holder ribs and ski-slope hips, was I in fact seeing, and loving, a different creature altogether?
– about that time someone I loved starved herself to bones and carved herself into mine.